How Infrastructure Week Finally Happened – 11/09/2021 – Paul Krugman

Thirteen Republican congressmen voted in favor of the infrastructure bill that now goes to the table of US President Joe Biden. It may not sound like much, but given the intensity of Republican partisanship — the loser in the New Jersey gubernatorial race has yet to concede defeat — getting that number of Republicans back for an initiative that could help Biden is surprising.

Those votes suggest that politicians believe what polls indicate — that repairing roads and bridges, expanding broadband and other actions are immensely popular and that opposing the law would be politically costly. (Six progressive Democrats voted against the bill, but Nancy Pelosi, who said she had a “secret leader count,” could have gotten some of those votes if she needed them.)

But if spending on infrastructure is a factor in political victory, why didn’t that happen to Donald Trump? The Trump administration declared Infrastructure Week in June 2017, but no legislative proposal materialized, and by the time Trump lost re-election the phrase had become a national joke. Why?

It wasn’t just incompetence, although that was a part of it. The bigger story is that the modern Republican Party is constitutionally incapable—or perhaps, given recent behavior, should be unconstitutionally incapable—to invest in the future of the United States. And, sad to say, the pro-business Democrats, who we really should stop calling “centrists,” have some of the same problems.

Trump talked a lot about infrastructure during the 2016 election campaign. But the “plan” released by his advisers, actually just a vague outline, was a mess. It wasn’t even a true public investment proposal; to a large extent, it was an exercise in nepotistic capitalism, a taxpayer-subsidized private investment scheme that, like the “zones of opportunity” that were part of the 2017 tax cut, would have mostly dumped benefits on wealthy contractors. It was also completely infeasible.

If Trump had wanted to do something real, he would have had to go to people who had some idea of ​​what they were doing, who at least knew how to write legislation. But he was unwilling to work with the Democrats — and key Republican congressmen, in particular Mitch McConnell, opposed significant investment in infrastructure every step of the way.

Why this opposition? Much of it was ostensibly about paying for the extra expenses. Republicans were against new taxes, of course, especially on businesses and the rich. They also claimed to be against new government debt.

But the first rule of deficit policy is that no one really cares about debt. Republicans certainly didn’t care when they applied a $1.9 trillion ($10.5 trillion) tax cut without any cost savings to compensate. The group of Democrats still rejecting Biden’s Rebuild Better plan, which would invest in people as well as steel and concrete, delayed the vote asking for a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. But they don’t seem to mind the fact that the physical infrastructure bill is paid for in part in smoke and mirrors and that the Budget Office calculates it will add hundreds of billions of dollars to the public deficit.

It turns out that many economists today believe that given low interest rates we really shouldn’t worry about deficits. But that doesn’t stop politicians from selectively invoking deficit fears as a way to block government programs they don’t support.

In the case of mainstream Republicans, this basically means opposing anything other than military spending. Anything else is “socialism,” which on the right has come to mean spending money in any way that helps ordinary citizens.

Indeed, it is quite clear that what conservatives fear is not that new government programs will fail. They are afraid that the programs will be considered a success and help to legitimize a greater role for government in addressing social problems.

That is, they fear that government programs that actually help people might turn us into a “country of beneficiaries” — perhaps even a country that taxes the rich to pay aid to the needy.
Given that attitude, the only way Trump could have gotten an infrastructure bill would be to bypass much of his party and work with the Democrats. But like I said, he wasn’t up to it.

Unfortunately, the handful of Democrats who can still kill Rebuild Better seem to share the Republican unwillingness to invest in the future, even in a milder way. They want to spend on infrastructure, even with borrowed money. But they fear social spending, although there is strong evidence that such spending would greatly help the economy (not to mention their own voters). Why? Well, Joe Manchin says he fears that we will become a “citizen right society”.

By then, however, accepting this nonsense would have enormous political as well as human costs. Biden’s ability to finally pass the infrastructure bill that Trump eluded for four years is an objective lesson of what can be achieved if we set aside ideologues and capitalist camaraderie. Now the Democrats must finish the job.

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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